When I was six I befriended a homeless man. I met him on a park bench next to my house and thought he was the greatest person ever. I visited him often and tried to convince my father to let me take things to the man on the bench. Food, money, house plants, it didn’t matter; I just wanted to give.

Now, you may be thinking Who lets their daughter be friends with a bum? I trust my father had good reasons, namely that it was a different day and kids had a lot more freedom to explore their world. Plus, as he tells me now, I always showed a keen interest in the homeless and the ultra-wealthy. Bums and limos were kinda my thing, I guess. As long as I was safe, who was he to corral me into a hermetic environment?

My friend the homeless man was kind and patient. He let me prattle on about whatever spilled out of my mouth. In response to the many questions I asked him, he provided simple answers. Unfortunately for both of us, each answer only fed my curiosity more. In my little mind, I couldn’t figure out what it meant to not have a home, or how you could fit all your belongings in one small bag, or where you went to the bathroom, or where you slept, or how you ate, or who tucked you in at night, or when your home would come back to you. I even remember wondering if he ever left the bench. After sitting there all day, did he just lie down at night and then sit up in the morning? Where were all the people who loved him, I wondered?

One day I finally asked him why he didn’t have a home and he rocked my world by telling me that at one point he had a house and a job and a family, but his house burned down and his family died. I really couldn’t wrap my head around that at all. When I told my father, he said “Yah, likely story.” But to this day I still believe the man and think about him often. I wish he were around today so I could ask him all the questions I never asked. I want to know what became of him.

While there is one part of me that wonders why I was allowed to be friends with a bum, there is another, bigger part of me that is so thankful for all the freedom I had as a kid. Maybe I had an angel looking over me, or maybe the world was different then, but I came out unscathed after soaking up all the experiences and adventures that come along with independence. Well, not entirely. There were plenty of skinned knees from falling off my bike. But there were more treasures than skids, like when I pedaled three two-for-one coupons to three different Dairy Queens around town so I could eat a total of six ice creams in one afternoon. Or when I walked my friend home from school every day and fell down in puddles of laughter at each step.

My own son is not interested in the kind of independence I had, nor am I interested in him having it. However, I do find myself encouraging him to do things he doesn’t want to do, like walk to his friend’s house alone or use the men’s bathroom at the grocery store. Maybe he is just smarter than me. Mountain lions live around here and he knows they could snag him. Creeps hang out in public bathrooms and he knows he could be prey.

We aren’t overly cautious parents, but we talk to our son about things that weren’t discussed when I was a kid. In my day, people didn’t talk to kids about safe grownups or being the boss of one’s own body.  I was taught to be strong, intuitive and independent, but I was pretty clueless to the fact that grownups could be bad to kids. I knew what a kidnapper was, but I envisioned such a person looking like a kidnapper. Perhaps I thought kidnappers would wear a sign identifying them as such.

Now that I am a parent, I find myself struggling to find the balance between encouraging independence and self-sufficiency, and protecting and teaching. I want to be protective and extra safe, but what does my son lose in the process? He certainly won’t be friends with a homeless man anytime soon. At the same time, I would have missed out on a great gift had I not known the man on the bench.

Linked to the parental drive to protect is prejudice. My father was leery about the man on the bench being anything more than a crazy person, but he never told me that. He kept an eye on things, but he never laid down a judgment or spoke badly of the man. If he had, what would it have done to my view of the world – to my acceptance of people who are different from me?

I’m pretty sure my son will grow up being prejudice of people who smoke cigarettes or don’t wear helmets, but in my effort to protect him what other unintentional judgments do I impart on him?

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